Basic Information for Digital Beginners

Basic Information for Digital Beginners

By Roger Heid


In this article I am addressing all those of you who have, in the past, operated analogue layouts and decided to now go the digital route. It also addresses brand new beginners going the digital route right from the very start.

There actually is a wealth of information published in both, the Forum and in the Blogs. If you just joined, it may be a little time consuming and tedious to find all this and put it together. Here is some condensed basic information and advice to help you to get started.

Some of you may not really understand what ‘digital’ means. This is not easy to explain to a lay person. Let us go back to 1844. The telegraph had been invented, and the Morse Alphabet started to see widespread use. The individual letters and numerals consist of sequences of only two characters, dots and dashes. (SOS  turns into …  — … ) Three dots for an S, three dashes for an O.

In order to transmit a length of text, only two characters are used. A computer uses a very similar system whereby the two characters are a 1 and and 0. Systems like that are using what is called a ‘Binary Code’, meaning the code consists of only two parts or characters.

A computer processes information in digital language, based on a binary code. The purpose of this blog is not to teach computer science, therefore I will not go any further. All you need to understand is that any digital system is based on the use of some kind of computer. This is about as simple as I can describe this.

So, what exactly does a digital system do for a model railroader?

Those of you familiar with analogue layouts have noticed that, if you put more than one locomotive on a track circuit, they will all start running as you bring up the throttle. Maybe that was not what you wanted. In order to be able to run them individually, you needed three separate track circuits, requiring three separate power supplies. A given locomotive could not cross over to the tracks the other locos ran on. Most likely, you did not like that either.

You also noticed that interior car lighting varied in brightness at different speeds and went out completely when the train stopped. That is not very life like, isn’t it?

A digital control station (throttle) will eliminate these undesirable operating conditions. Now you can address an individual locomotive, not unlike making a phone call. When you call someone, only the phone of the party you called is ringing, not all the phones in the world.

The interior car lights stay lit, at their full brightness, as long as your system is powered up and track power is applied. These lights do not care what the locomotive does. They stay lit even when the train stops.

In a digital system, all locomotives in use must have a decoder installed. This device handles all the commands coming from the control station, namely direction, speed, lights and sound. The amount and type of available functions depends on the decoder features. Not all decoders are the same.

In most cases, an existing locomotive can be retro-fitted with a decoder. This issue needs to be dealt with on a case to case basis. If in doubt, post a question in the forum, indicating make, model and age of a given locomotive.

One thing is very important, be aware. All devices, such as building and street lights, signals, turnout solenoids or motors need to be powered by a separate power supply. DO NOT feed them with track power.

With most all Digital Controllers you can also control these peripheral devices mentioned above, but each of them will need their own decoder. Obviously, this will make the whole affair more complex. Cross this bridge once you get to it. It is best to post any questions in the Forum. This way we can tailor the answers to your individual needs.

If you choose HO Scale for your layout, you must know that you can choose between either the 3-rail AC system (Maerklin), or the 2-rail DC system (all other makes). Maerklin uses its own proprietary digital language, the rest of them are all compatible. Their norm is called NMRA DCC. Forum postings and blogs contain more information about this.

The choice between the two can be difficult. If you are confused or want to know more about this, just post your questions on the Forum. We will be more than happy to help you, as much as we possibly can.


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